SHOWN AT FRIGHTFEST 2012
OUT NOW ON DVD AND BLU RAY
RUNNING TIME: 100 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sometime in the early 70’s, Gilderoy works as a sound engineer. He arrives from England to Italy where his latest job awaits. He is not too happy about the fact that it is a brutal horror film and is very uncomfortable about the graphic nature of some of the footage he has viewed and has to work with. Despite being seemingly unable to get the money back from his flight, he starts his work like the diligent professional he is. The producer Giovanni pushes him, and everyone else too, to work ever harder while the director Francesco, who refuses to call his film ‘horror’, only seems to drop in every now and again. Tensions rise and rise within the group and Gilderoy begins to feel very isolated from anything resembling normality…..
In 2009, the superb Amer deconstructed the giallo [that crazy subgenre of Italian films which proliferated in the 70’s, giallos being essentially chic mystery thrillers with great cinematic style combined with sleazy content and special emphasis on vicious murders] into a wonderfully daring and hypnotic piece of cinematic art, giallos being so much of their time that it’s best for modern filmmakers to play with the formula and come up with something new. Four years after Amer, we have another work that attempts new things while still being a tribute to that wonderfully bonkers type of movie. Berberian Sound Studio is in part a love letter to the giallo and you can feel the director’s love throughout. It is an interesting film, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it somewhat disappointing. Maybe I expected another Amer, and it probably didn’t help that the film I had seen at Frightfest prior to it was the absolutely stunning, shattering Sleep Tight!
Berberian Sound Studio is one of those films that you are certainly enjoying but keep wanting it to get better so it can become really good. It certainly begins superbly, with Gilderoy entering the studio and, as he passes what is obviously the screening room, hears the unmistakeable sounds of an Italian horror film, somewhat luring him in. Then we cut to the opening credits of The Equestrian Vortex, the film which Gilderoy is obviously going to be working on, and it’s a perfect pastiche of the kind of main title music and Andy Warhols-style credits the film may have had. Importantly though, this is the only footage from The Equestrian Vortex that you actually see, and I admire the filmmakers bravery, though I’m not sure it works for the whole film. I feel it needed that extra dimension of seeing, at least, some of what Gilderoy is working on.
Much of the film just consists of Gilderoy, sometimes with others, creating his sound effects. It’s very interesting being shown how this kind of stuff was done before proper computer technology. I expect many people know that stabbing vegetables would often provide the sound of a sharp implement going into human flesh, but you may be surprised how some other things are achieved. The sound of a person being drowned, for example, is done by one guy splashing his hands around in a water tank while another blows through a straw. This alternates with scenes of various actresses dubbing scenes into Italian [remember, these films were usually shot silent and then dubbed into various languages], lots of stuff with an Edda Dal Orso-like female wordless female vocalist, and dreamlike passages where we are shown Gilderoy’s sound effects chart with the soundtrack being played over it. These give an idea of The Equestrian Vortex, along with very funny script descriptions of passages that need sound effects, but because not much really happens for much of Berberian Sound Studio, nor was it gripping or atmospheric enough that I didn’t mind that not much was happening, I just wanted to see some of the film goddamnit!
The Equestrian Vortex itself does not seem to be an actual giallo, even of the supernatural kind like Suspiria [ a film which informs this one throughout], but a tale of once-persecuted witches closer to something like Black Sunday. At the Q and A after Berberian Sound Studio, the writer and director Peter Strickland confirmed my thoughts I had during the film about Death Laid An Egg being an influence [it’s always annoying when you think something about a film which is then dispelled soon afterwards], and I also thought of Blow Out. There’s no doubt that Berberian Sound Studio is also thoroughly its own movie though. Though set mostly inside the studio, it has a great 70’s feel akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and you feel you’re really getting inside knowledge on how some of these films would have been made, accurate or not. The producer pushes everyone to their breaking point. The often-absent director, who casts starlets in the ‘casting couch’ manner, has lofty opinions on the silly exploitation film he is making; there’s a hilarious bit when, talking about a brutal flashback sequence, he says how much he hates the torture women being accused of witches went through. Payment doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, with Gilderoy being shunted from pillar to post as he tries to get his plane ticket refunded. It all seems very authentic.
As fascinating as all this to probably anyone interested in filmmaking, let alone fans of Italian horror films, Berberian Sound Studio somewhat outstays its welcome after a while and you may wonder if the whole film is just about doing the sound effects on The Equestrian Vortex, with nothing else going on. Eventually, and certainly a little too late for me, things do change. Intrigue in the studio develops and then, in the final third, the film gains some weirdness of the ‘illusion versus reality’ kind, as Gilderoy becomes perhaps too immersed in his job. There’s one wonderfully surreal bit where elements of a letter he has received cause the film to cut to what seems like part of a documentary extolling the virtues of the English countryside. There’s also a rather spooky night visit and a silent attack, but the film doesn’t really become a thriller, instead ending up like something David Lynch may have made if…..well, if he was making a film about post-production on a 70’s Italian horror film, though for me it lacks Lynch’s almost alien atmosphere and the film just seems to suddenly end.
This film is strikingly directed throughout, and there are some images, such as an actress in a sound booth disappearing into darkness, that are very strong. Toby Jones gives a superb performance; he’s one of those great performers who can tell us a great deal about a character they are playing by the way they move or speak. The soundtrack by Broadcast is both a perfect replica of the kind of music people like Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai were writing for these sorts of films [and the keen-eared soundtrack fan will notice a few familiar ‘quotes’ ] and a knowing pastiche. I can’t wait to buy the soundtrack. Overall……well, I don’t feel too good about not praising to the skies a film that shows great affection for a type of movie that I personally love [it even has a guest appearance by a certain Suzy Kendall and boy can she still scream!] but Berberian Sound Studio, as intriguing as it is, just doesn’t entirely work even if overall it has much to recommend it. Any fan of old Italian horror should find much to enjoy.